Gabon is a rare exception in Africa. On a continent where most economies are in severe crisis and the outlook is bleak for growth and improved living standards, the 1 million inhabitants of this central African state can look forward to the future with hope.
The key to the good fortune is a fabulously wealthy subsoil. Gabon, for example, is sub-Saharan Africa's third largest oil producer and recent discoveries bode well for the country's hydrocarbon industry.Moreover, Gabon is the continent's second largest supplier of
Manganese after South Africa, holding 25 percent of the world's known reserves of this strategic mineral. It ranks fourth both in uranium exports and tropical wood supplies.
These abundant resources provide sufficient income to give Gabon a per capita gross domestic product of about $3,000, the second highest in Africa behind only Libya.
Libreville does not conform to the popular image of an African capital. It is not a rundown backwater with endless slums. The town is clean, traffic is not too bad and creature comforts abound, albeit at a high price.
It boasts one of the best hotel infrastructures in Africa, often on an international level. The capital has a respectable list of French-run gourmet restaurants. The French community is estimated at about 20,000 people, including 400 crack paratroopers and an air force unit.
English-speaking expatriates - increasingly numerous in the oil industry - can tune into Ted Turner's CNN television and get the latest U.S. news and sports.
In addition, Gabon has three of its own French-language television networks and the latest Parisian films are usually on the Libreville movie screens.
The Gabonese have a natural sense of joie de vivre, perhaps too developed as President Omar Bongo occasionally points out with a touch of humor. In fact, Gabon has the highest per capita rate for the import of French Champagne, which locals jokingly refer to as Okoume Juice, a sort of home- brewed palm wine.
Expatriates familiar with other black African states are often amazed that communication and transport infrastructure work without a hitch in Gabon: direct dialing to the United States poses no particular problem. Not only does the national airline, Air Gabon, fly on time with service up to par, but roads are good and a new $2 billion 650-mile railroad was recently inaugurated.
Although Gabon is a one party state, political debate and outright criticism of the government is quite prominent. The government-run daily, L'Union, has a regular column wherein lightly coded language ministers, top civil servants and leading businessmen are taken to task much to the glee of public opinion.
A popular show on the state television involves a different minister - the government has 53 of them, or about one for each 10,000 inhabitants - being grilled by a panel of journalists on his track record.
Although a former French possession, Gabon has made efforts to diversify its trade and investment partners. President Bongo makes no secret of the fact that Gabon is not a French game reserve.
U.S. companies, specially in the oil sector, have made remarkable progress in recent years. Chicago-based Amoco Corp. was the first U.S. firm to produce oil in Gabon, to be followed by the end of 1987 by the Tenneco conglomerate.
Conoco has acquired in partnership with Exxon high-promise acreage. Several other U.S. companies are expected to pick up acreage in Gabon in 1987, including Chevron, the Dallas-based independent, Triton Energy Corp. and Standard Oil of Ohio.
At a time when weak oil prices and a depressed U.S. dollar are playing havoc with Gabon's finances, excellent news has come out of the recent oil exploration activities: Shell Gabon, the affiliate of the Royal/Dutch Shell group, announced the largest single discovery in the history of the Gabonese oil industry.
On an onshore permit, Shell struck deposits with recoverable reserves of at least 80 million tons, doubling the country's known hydrocarbon resources. Significantly, this is the first time that an important discovery has been made onshore.
Since most of Gabon's onshore area is unexplored, bright new prospects are opening up for this central African state. It has adopted a pragmatic approach in negotiations with oil concerns in order to attract as many as possible to the country.